An amputation performed 31,000 years ago is the oldest known surgery

Until now, the oldest evidence of such a surgical procedure was detected in a 7,000-year-old skeleton discovered in 2010 at a Neolithic site in France.

Scientists also linked the emergence of medicine to the Neolithic revolution of about 10,000 years ago, during the advent of agriculture and sedentarization.

Maxime Aubert and his colleague Adam Brumm.

Photo: Kinez Riza

The present discovery, the details of which are published in the journal Nature (New window) (in English), thus upsets knowledge by revealing that hunter-gatherers practiced surgery thousands of years earlier than what has been estimated to date.

Professor Aubert and his team had revealed in January 2021 the existence, also in Indonesia, of the oldest known figurative paintings: the image of a wild boar, painted on the wall of a cave on the island of Sulawesi there is 45,500 years old. He was also named Scientist of the Year 2021 for this discovery.

At the beginning of 2020, Maxime Aubert’s team invested the cave of Liang Tebo to date the cave paintings there. It was on this occasion that she discovered the burial of a Homo sapiens.

It is very rare to find human skeletons of that age. He was placed in a hole in a fetal position with objects around him, including a large ball of red ocher (used to paint the walls of caves) near his mouth or in his mouth.explained Mr. Aubert to journalist Sophie-Andrée Blondin in an interview broadcast on the program The light yearsth Sunday September 11th.

A man stands in a cave with the lower part of his left leg amputated.

Enlarge image (New window)

Artistic depiction of a prehistoric individual whose lower left leg was amputated in childhood.

Photo: Griffith University/Jose Garcia

Archaeologists quickly noticed that the skeleton was peculiar. Part of the leg was missing and the left foot was missing, notes the professor. It is possible to see a very clear straight cut and signs of bone repair are also observable under the microscope, which proves, according to the scientists, that it is a surgical amputation.

This person was an adult in his early twenties, but the amputation had taken place at least 6-9 years before his death. »

A quote from Maxime Aubert, archaeologist and geochemist.

According to Mr. Aubert, an amputation caused by a fall or an animal attack would not have been as regular.

The researchers don’t know what type of instrument the procedure was performed with, but they believe it was a chipped stone tool.

Furthermore, this amputation shows that the humans of this region at this remote time had knowledge of anatomy, of the human muscular and vascular system.

They cut off the leg to ensure the survival of this individual. They had to know where to cut and how to negotiate seams. They also had to stop the blood. They must have had some knowledge of medicinal plants since no trace of infection can be seen. »

A quote from Max Aubert

The young teenager’s wound had to be regularly cleaned and disinfected to prevent any postoperative bleeding or infection that could lead to death. This suggests that these people probably had a pharmacy, that they knew the local plantsadded Maxime Aubert.

Sex difficult to determine

The skeleton has both male and female attributes. One of the hypotheses put forward by the researchers is that this person might have known a problem with the endocrine glands that secrete hormones, but this remains to be confirmedbelieves Mr. Aubert. The skeleton could belong to an intersex person who possesses the attributes of both sexes.

Two anthropologists work in a cave.

Archaeologists Tim Maloney and Andika Priyatno work in the limestone cave of Liang Tebo in Borneo, Indonesia, in March 2020.

Photo: Griffith University

In addition, the physical condition of the young amputee probably compelled those around him to take care of him, which testifies to an altruistic behavior among this group of hunter-gatherers.

This discovery sheds new light on the care and treatment provided in the distant past, and challenges our view that these issues were not taken into consideration in prehistoric timessays Charlotte Ann Roberts, an archaeologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, in a commentary accompanying the study.

Maxime Aubert’s team will carry out new excavations next year in the Liang Tebo cave in order to learn more about the humans who inhabited it.

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